(Urban) Landscape Photography

On the hunt with a compact camera and big game in mind

Dewitt Jones captured this moment in the urban landscape with a Panasonic LUMIX DMC-LX3.

Ah, there’s nothing like wild nature! Standing alone on some windswept hill staring through your telephoto lens at a herd of elk quietly grazing in a meadow below. Capturing the moment when a snowy egret lands on her nest or filling cards with images as she feeds her young. Snapping a once-in-a-lifetime shot as a brown bear snatches a salmon from an icy stream.

I could wax rhapsodic on experiences like these for hours. Unfortunately, I’m in New York City, here to give a talk to 700 stockbrokers, about as far away from wild nature as I possibly could be. Try as I might, I’m just not a city guy (no disrespect, but large congregations of my own species just don’t do it for me). But my lecturing means I spend a fair amount of time in cities. I had to do something to change my attitude or I was going to become urbanly depressed.

Enter small point-and-shoot cameras. I’ve written a lot about these little gems in this column—how good they are, how they have changed the way I shoot. Nowhere has this been more evident than in my relationship to the urban landscape.

I stare out into my audience of financial folks there in the New York ballroom. Not so different than a herd of bulls (true, there are a few bears among them). Equally fascinating to watch. Seriously. It’s only too much time in the wilderness that has my brain trying to tell me that elk are far more interesting than humans.

I start to reach for the little Panasonic LUMIX LX3 on my belt. “Dewitt! You’re on stage! You can’t take a photo now!” True. I repress the urge. But as soon as the talk is over, I head out on the streets of Manhattan for a little urban wildlife photography.

I set my camera to ISO 400 (more if it’s overcast). I’m not going to make huge blowups of these shots, so I’m not worried about color noise. Besides, there are too many great noise-reduction programs to help with that. Most of the time I set the camera on shutter priority at 1⁄250 sec. Then I set it to manual focus and fix a focal distance so it will be sharp from, say, four feet to 100 feet (this way the camera doesn’t have to try and focus for each shot and delay the shutter firing).

Now I just hunt. No holding up the camera and looking at the viewing screen; that would call too much attention to the hunter. I just hold it down at my side with my finger on the shutter. A few hundred bad shots and you get very good at knowing just where to point it and how to keep it level.

There, now, in front of me, a man with a trench coat and a fedora. Just like my dad used to wear when he worked in Chicago. Ah, but a rare bird in this day and age. A true find. I follow and begin to shoot. Humans are, for the most part, friendlier than wild animals. But they can turn ugly when they feel cornered, exposed, or that somehow I might make money off their image. I’d best be careful.

Up ahead, I see the point where he will leave the sunshine and plunge into the deep midtown shadows. I know where my shot has to be taken. I walk quickly up behind him, stop, level the camera and, just as he steps into the darkness, shoot. Got it! A delightful image made even better by the sheer serendipity of the flowers and the man in the window on the right. I’m as proud of this image as any I’ve ever taken of elk or bear.

Earlier that month, I had been in Paris wandering through room after room of Impressionist paintings at the Musée d’Orsay. The paintings themselves were, as always, lovely, but this day I was even more interested in what they attracted. Here was an environment that enticed art lovers from all over the world. I could have been standing at Bosque del Apache NWR watching the allure of those magical wetlands draw the snow geese down out of the sky.

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the blue-and-white markings of a Parisian Aficionado, rare worldwide, but actually quite common in this environment. Like any good wildlife photographer, I wanted to find a moment when her behavior, her body language, expressed who she was. She walked toward a painting. I moved quietly toward her. She stopped, stared, then placed her hands on her hips, leaned forward and stared again. Yes, the moment. Again, click, got it. Another wildlife treasure. A good day of hunting.

My little cameras have opened up a whole new photographic world for me. I think they also have opened up a new level of compassion and understanding. I used to go through cities with my eyes half-closed. Half-closed, just counting time before I could return to nature and fully open them again. No more. Now there’s no separation. It’s not man or nature. It’s all just nature. We’re just as much a part of it as anything else that grows or slithers or chirps. There are wonderful images to capture out there in the (urban) wilderness. I just needed to open my eyes.

Follow Dewitt Jones’ project “Celebrate What’s Right with the World!” Each week Jones is sending out a single image with the message: “Celebrate What’s Right with the World!” Just to brighten the day. Just to remind us of all we have to be grateful for. If you’d like to receive them, join his mailing list at www.celebratewhatsright.com.

Dewitt Jones is one of America’s top professional photographers. Twenty years with National Geographic photographing stories around the globe has earned him the reputation as a world-class photojournalist. As a motion picture director, he had two documentary films nominated for Academy Awards before he was thirty. Dewitt has published nine books including California! and John Muir’s High Sierra. His most recent book, The Nature of Leadership, was created in collaboration with Stephen R. Covey.